Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club

with 12 comments

‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron Hurley was originally published on the author’s website.

The third story on the BSFA Award shortlist and the third story to be part of an existing universe of the author’s invention. The trend towards trilogies and series has been much remarked on with genre novels but is short fiction going the same way? Or do stories that take place in a wider continuity have an advantage in terms of profile when it comes to nominations time. Okay, my sample size isn’t massive but it still seems worth remarking on. This time round, I’ve actually read some of Hurley’s related fiction set on the planet of Nasheen. As I mentioned in my editorial for the last Vector, God’s War wasn’t eligible for the BSFA Award (although it received a few nominations) because it was only published in the US. No such restriction applies to short fiction.

Starting your story in media res, entirely in dialogue, is a pretty aggressive way of setting out your stall, particularly when the third sentence is: “And what the fuck does she want?” This isn’t a surprise if you’ve read God’s War since it is a pretty aggressive book. But ‘Afterbirth’ turns out to be a story of two halves of which the more aggressive is the lesser. This half acts as a framing device and is an interview between Bakira so Dasheem, a farmer turned astronomer turned farmer again, and an anonymous councillor. As is so often the case, the frame is rather forced and in this instance it is made more so by the fact it is solely dialogue. The personality of neither woman comes across and they are reduced to perfunctory jousting; the councillor is simply implacably hostile, Bakira is given to speechifying:

You say Nasheen is ruled by God and Queen, but it is not. It is ruled by rich, blind, First Family women like you who wish to divide and conquer us. I see what you made us, and I reject it. We are not just the bloody afterbirth, the mess you leave behind as you claw your way to prominence. We are human beings, as good as you.

The other story, Bakira’s story, is another matter. It foregrounds birth, family and work – all things central to life but depressingly alien to much SF – whilst simultaneously showing these things willingly (if grudgingly) subordinated to state: “Because it was not until that night that she realized what she was. What all of them were. They were merely bodies. Weapons of war.” The problem is that this half of the story is very short to cover the whole of Bakira’s life and left to stand on its own it is a slight work.

One of Bakira’s daughters is Nyx, the main protagonist of God’s War, which makes it a prequel of sorts but, more than that, it functions almost as a prologue. To someone who has read that novel it is a highly satisfying expansion of various strands, particularly the interstellar context, but I can’t see how it would work for someone who hadn’t read God’s War. Returning to the question I asked at the beginning, does it work as a story in its own right or is it merely a sampler of Hurley’s settings and concerns?

Written by Martin

8 February 2012 at 11:10

12 Responses

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  1. I can’t see how it would work for someone who hadn’t read God’s War.

    I can see how it would, I think: the story, main character, and angle on the world are completely unrelated to the novel. Moreover it’s a familiar story-arc, the dissident voice kicking Galileo-like against religious authority, that gives the tale a strong built-in structure and payoff, and by its nature tells you about how the world is organised. And having the councilwoman as a somewhat anonymous stone wall works for me in that context, because it keeps the focus on Bakira.

    None of which is the same as saying it will work for people who haven’t read GW. Aside from anything else there’s always the risk of that horrible nagging feeling when there are references you know you’re not getting (I hate that feeling, it’s very distracting). But I’d almost be more concerned about people going in the opposite direction, I don’t know that I’d want to say this is representative of the novel.

    (On the other hand, now that I come to think of it, it’s a bit more representative of Infidel, which for its first half spends a reasonable amount of time with some characters who have basically retired and gone domestic.)


    8 February 2012 at 11:32

  2. Sorry, I don’t think I was very clear. You are completely right that the story, main character, and angle on the world are very distinct to God’s War. But I’m not sure I would say they are completely unrelated, more deliberately positioned in opposition. To put it another way, is the story only interesting if you can see the ways in which it is different?

    “Only interesting” is too strong but it does strike me as a thin story that achieves its depth through additional knowledge on the part of the reader. If you were going to tell this familiar story-arc having never used the setting before, I think you’d have to do more (and the bar here is award-worthy rather than just decent.) But we’ve both read it so I’m arguing hypotheticals and would be interested to know what someone for who this story was the first exposure thought.

    On the point of representativeness, you are right that tonally it is probably a bad introduction to God’s War but in terms of concerns and intent? I’m actually more interested in reading Infidel now that I’ve read ‘Afterbirth’.


    8 February 2012 at 11:54

  3. My main connection to the story is, as Martin says, through the way that it expands the world of God’s War and its protagonist’s background. So while it may be possible for the story to work for someone who hasn’t read the book, that isn’t how it worked for me. I liked the more in-depth look into Nasheen’s breeding apparatus – it’s an interesting reversal of familiar gender issues (which echoes the many other reversals of this type in GW) that instead of being forced to choose between career and family, Bakira is forced to have a family she doesn’t want in order to have a career, and her ambivalence towards her children, coupled with a desperate desire to escape from the world that had forced her to bear them, was the most intriguing aspect of the story.


    8 February 2012 at 11:57

  4. I seem to be the only person here who has not read God’s War yet (sorry Niall, it’s on the TBR pile) and it worked well for me. Possibly better, in that I get the sense that everyone else is reading it as a fleshing out of background story whereas I was reading a sort of character study of Bakira against a science-fictiony background whose rules I had yet to work out.

    Though when I say it worked well I’m not sure I mean award-winningly well; just that it worked for me as an entity in itself.

    I did think, as Martin says, that Bakira was a little too “given to speechifying” and that weakened those sections of the story. But I think the impassioned speeches work well with the Galileoesque plot, and the whole thing might have been a bit incoherent otherwise.


    8 February 2012 at 14:56

  5. I hadn’t read “Afterbirth” before it was shortlisted for the BSFA Award – I’d read God’s War at the prompting of the evil Niall Harrison and found that I really didn’t enjoyed it and so wasn’t seeking out more work by Kameron Hurley. Following the nomination I approached the story with some scepticism and found myself surprised that I quite enjoyed reading it but also that it crystallises my problems with Hurley’s first novel.

    The best thing about “Afterbirth”, for me, is the (almost complete) absence of Nyxnissa. Part of this isn’t Hurley’s fault. Over the last year or so I have run out of patience with stories that feature former soldiers/assassins/spies/cops who have been done wrong, are down on their luck, damaged but really just misunderstood and yet still capable of taking down whole regiments with the flick of their little finger. Hurley’s character is by no means as hackneyed as some entries in this canon, but Nyx is in the same ballpark and I took against her immediately. And if a story is going to have a character like Nyx – who has survived against all the odds – then it should at least demonstrate why this character has made it through where so many others have died. Nyx can take a beating, but she’s as dumb as a bag of bricks – walking into situations without planning, putting everyone she cares for and everything she cares about in danger without assessing risk, never planning ahead or devising an exit plan. It is hard to imagine how she has survived for five minutes in the brutal war that dominates Nasheen. She was, for me, the worst of both worlds – a type of character I don’t care for who has been unconvincingly drawn.

    With Nyx (mostly) out of the way, “Afterbirth” does much more to draw out some the potential in Hurley’s world. The best bits of God’s War are wrapped up in the world building. I liked the “magic bug” technology but the novel backgrounds so much of what was potentially interesting about Nasheen – the politics of reproduction, the class divisions – in favour of a series of not particularly convincing action sequences. Without the boxing and the gunfights “Afterbirth” feels as though does more to tackle the interesting parts of Hurley’s world in 18 pages than God’s War managed in nearly 300.

    I liked “Afterbirth” but I’m not sure whether – as Martin asks – the story would work particularly well for a reader who wasn’t familiar with the wider world of the novel. I wonder what someone not familiar with the longer work would make of the brief mention of the magic bugs and the story is quite exposition heavy – the speechifying Martin talks about.

    If I’m being really picky, I also have a slight problem with motivations. The limiting and then closing of the space research facility feels too much like a randomly added element to move the plot in the desired direction. And there are moments when Bakira’s internal monologue about her relationship with her children feels like the author’s lack of total conviction about how these characters are working together bleeding through onto the page.

    I don’t think “Afterbirth” does enough to convince me to pick up Hurley’s second novel, Infidel, but it does make me think that there’s a chance, in the future, she might write stuff that I would enjoy reading.

    Martin McGrath

    8 February 2012 at 20:37

  6. Well, Martin I haven’t read any of this author´s other works, so I guess I could be an example; a beta reader, of you may, for your theory.

    First of all, I will say I have found this short story more appealing and interesting the more I have gone through it, reading it twice and reading bits of it with more attention. It deals with a good protagonist (here, we do feel and understand her, as opposite to what I remarked on Allan’s story with that protagonist); and it articulates an invented universe I may want to know better. In that way, it would be a successful short story, and not part of that possible tendency, not far to what Martin has mentioned (if I understood it correctly): if short stories are now to be only function as `parts´ or `introductions´ to the author’s other works. So, in regard to what Niall said, no, I didn’t feel I was missing secrets clues.

    However, it is true that I feel that the author has too many more directions or themes to treat or express; that this short story isn’t just enough. I find that, at times, there is a need to compress too much there, though I can´t say if it is because the author want to give clues and points of interest for us readers to deep into more of her works, or because of other reasons. I found that this exposal of data and information is increasing as you move on in the fiction. Perhaps that explains my sensation; the closer I got to the end, the more I felt: I don’t need more data; I can deduce the rest of the context by those details before.

    At times, I was like: `ok, I promise I will research more of this world in other stories or novels but please… don’t keep adding new data. ´

    Fernando Hugo

    9 February 2012 at 01:37

  7. Ups, sorry. I said (wrote) “exposal”; I guess the rigth word is “exposition”.

    Since Martin has pointed out that beginning, I would say that those “inserts”, those short scenes of dialogue between the councilwoman and the protagonist, may give some rhythm and variations. So we have the narrative of facts (maybe too summarized; it is a long life we are confronting here) on the one hand, and those conversations. Perhaps it is an attempt not to fall on that usual habit of expressing all the data through dialogue, but also not by (bothering most of the time, to me) the other usual technique: info dumps.

    But there is a detail I found problematic: since these moments are without a clue of the chronological context, I was not sure when they exactly happen. With a second reading, I have realized that, precisely paying literal respect to what “insert” in cinema is, this scene is only one, and it happens at the end of the protagonist journey investigating that one thing which has made her wondering about for years.

    So, maybe, it is not only a way of adding variation to the style (dialogues and pure narrative text) but also an interesting method for us to contrast how she can be so daring with the councilwoman (some sort of a “superior”, after all), and how she has managed to possess this clarity. Apart for that other (not that unusual either, I am afraid) technique: the flashbacks.

    Strange impression, then; only in that second reading, I discover not that original structure there. Or, who knows, maybe the originality relies just on the fact that you are not totally sure when those conversations are happening. Could someone ask the author directly.

    On the story content itself, too many issues that can’t be treated here, in this extension. As I said earlier, it is a long life is expressed here, and in that sense, Bakira´s evolution maybe needs more pages. Still, the manner in which the facts are told are most of the time pointing out the essential (so far from that excess of details in Allan’s story), and sometimes it offers beautiful passages.

    But I agree with Martin. That need for telling too much leads to that problem I thought it was going to be avoided: the overuse of dialogue to explain some details of this world and its rules. Or to explain what the character thinks or feels. On what Martin Macgrath said, I would also say that sometimes you may discover that some facts are there for convenience and not exactly proceeding from the narrative itself. For example: the decision of confronting the councilwoman. It could be judged either contradictory (not in the good sense; Bakira is very interesting as a contradictory character, actually) or conceivable. We may see it contradictory, because it is obvious that Bakira knows very well the way of thinking of this system. But let’s say, she is that person who never gives up, who is prepare to try one more time, even in the face that this society she lives on is probably not to admit her theories. Is it conceivable, she will also risk her life or her future for it? As we progress in reading these conversations, we notice Bakira does not quiet any of her ideas… even if they could be taken as some kind of heresy. So I don’t know for sure the real motive for this meeting (a internal one, I mean; a external would be for the author to expose what the story needs to us).

    That said, I underline that Hurley’s story is, to this point, the best of three (of these BSFA´s nominees) on picturing powerful images. Images, which, at the same time, express very well this world she is portraying. Some examples:

    `The magicians crowded over her like flies, buzzing and spitting. ´

    Now, to me that image, at the moment she is to give birth, outlines perfectly this society in which a woman is always subdued to other people’s demands.

    `It was three days after the birth, and Bakira´s wound was already scarred over. They said she could
    come back and have it cut out of she liked, but most women liked to keep it, to prove they had one
    their part for the future of Nasheen.´

    I think this says a lot, and work very well as a way of synthesising how women is this world accept and even support the rules imposed on them.

    Actually, these images, the details (the bugs, as someone has pointed out) and the facts were enough. Having her putting in words (in the dialogue scene) how closed this system was, and how sick of it Bakira is, at the end, was, for me, a little bit making obvious what was not necessary. Again, agreed with Martin.

    Another topic I found interesting is this connection between God and exploration; more specifically, space exploration. I guess religion and science have been connected before in SF, but what attracts me is the way is assumed by the protagonist; how we are capable of understanding her desperation and her need to find an escape, and how those small hints of what she is able to see from the distance could, for her, tell a whole story of what happened years and years ago. And how that also builds a character with enriching contradictions.

    `For a woman whose use of logic is so vital to her proclaimed profession, you have presented very
    logical statements´

    Indeed. Whether because of the connection between magic and science we can infer there is in this world, or because of the personal connection Bakira has made, here we find a theme to be developed (or so I expect) on farther fictions from this author. If not, anyway we have this contradictory Bakira who doesn’t even know why she got her children back.

    So, well, I find it interesting. Maybe the best so far (I still have to think about what my impressions on Copenhagen Interpretation are, but…).

    Fernando Hugo

    9 February 2012 at 01:50

  8. […] ‘Afterbirth’ by Kameron […]

  9. Martin (McG), Infidel does much more to flesh out the world of the novels, and focuses more on the supporting cast than it does on Nyx. You might enjoy it more.


    10 February 2012 at 16:21

  10. I’ve not read anything by Hurley other than this, and on the strength of this, I wasn’t actually inclined to go on to read God’s War or of her work.

    As Martin notes, the story starts in a very aggressive fashion, to the point where I think it signals the inevitable outcome of the interview too heavily. As Martin also notes, the framing story is the lesser part of the narrative, but when it is the part inviting you into the story it would be nice to go in with a sense of wondering whether it will turn out as you suspect rather than wondering how it will turn out as you suspect. Even the pointers to the reader – colonial trash, colonial martyrs – don’t so much invite us to consider that there may be an alternative viewpoint to that of the interlocutor as tell us where we are supposed to be in this, and very insistently.

    As to the embedded story, it seemed to me to be reaching back to an older style of feminist sf, particularly with the focus on child-breeding as a state-organised activity, though as Abigail notes, the breeding in order to gain a career is an unusual twist. But it is also reaching back to things like Brave New World with its industrialisation of childbirth. I have to say my immediate thought, when I read about the birthing compounds and comments about ‘botched deliveries and mutant children’, coupled with the ‘tattoo that gave her name and birthplace’ plus the insistence on her giving birth despite her physical unsuitability, was of concentration camps, experimentation and so on, rather than even Huxley’s factories.

    In fact, the more I think about this story, the more I am intrigued by what little I can glean of the power relationships – powerful families, and what appears to be a matriarchal structure, shipping young males off to fight, positioning women as breeding vessels. Is this position actually being critiqued, or is there something else going on? Likewise, we have mullahs and magicians (i.e. scientists) – various different kinds of othering going on that don’t seem to be fully unpackable within this story, requiring me to look at Hurley’s other work.

    And then, on top of that, we move to a different issue altogether, of lost knowledge of a space-faring society.

    And I think that may perhaps be the biggest problem with this story for me. Too many different things jostling for attention in too short a space. And I suppose that means I have to read God’s War

    Maureen Kincaid Speller

    12 February 2012 at 16:51

  11. […] bellos pasajes. En lo referente a lo negativo, estoy de acuerdo con Martin, el autor del blog Everything is nice (y el que ha abierto el debate sobre los relatos nominados este año a los BSFA Awards). Esa […]

  12. […] was a shame Kameron Hurley’s debut novel was ineligible for UK awards (although the related story ‘Afterlife’ did make the BSFA Award ballot). A roiling stew of influences and ideas, it was vital and exciting […]

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